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A Singing Faith: CDs That Celebrate Congregational Song

Ours is a singing faith! John Calvin says that the human voice is the most God-glorifying instrument, for it is created and given breath by God. We could add to Calvin’s observation that even more God-glorifying than the human voice are human voices singing praise to God.

We are fortunate to live in a time when worshiping communities can share musical gifts anywhere at any time through the medium of compact disc recordings. Recordings can bring us right into the middle of a community of voices singing God’s praise.

What follows is a list of CDs featuring enthusiastic singing of hymns and songs that tell the good news of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. They are widely available, superbly produced, and bring clarity and focus to praising God. Use these CDs as a leaven to inspire excellence within your congregation. Listen to them like a sponge: soak up creative ideas, notice the texture of different instrumentations, learn new repertoire. Ask continually, how could this be used in my church? Adapt the ideas to your own setting.

On another level, use these recordings devotionally to keep your faith fresh. Vibrant leaders of music possess an authentic, living faith. Let the texts of these timeless treasures soak into your soul.

Classic Hymns and Psalms
Great Hymns of Faith: The St. Olaf Choir, Vols. I and II. Directed by Anton Armstrong. St. Olaf Recordings, E-2294 (Vol. 1) and E-2651 (Vol. II).

If I could have only one or two “desert island discs,” these would be my picks: a rich variety of hymnody perfectly sung by the St. Olaf choir and a rich compilation of texts. Add to this a unique approach to each hymn according to its genre: gospel piano for “Blessed Assurance,” skillful organ interpretations of John Ferguson in “From Heaven Above,” handbell chant accompaniment in the opening of “Holy God,” a cappella four-part chorale singing of “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Listeners will feel that they have been carried, musically and spiritually, from one place to another in a journey that never grows old.

Sing, Ye Heavens: Hymns for All Time. The Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter. Collegium, 2000; COLCD 126.

To produce this recording John Rutter arranged twenty-one hymns for choir and orchestra. Offerings range from ancient to modern (including a contemporary hymn by John Rutter) and from psalms to folk hymns; each is given sensitive and inspiring treatment. As added bonus, fifteen of these arrangements are published by Hinshaw, so you can purchase the music to use or adapt for your music group and instruments and use the CD as a teaching tool.

Hymns We Love to Sing. The National Lutheran Choir, David Cherwien, organist and conductor. NLCA0 1922.

From the organ bench David Cherwien leads a congregation and the National Lutheran Choir in singing fourteen hymns. Cherwien’s inspiring and creative approach to each hymn is remarkable: the hymn “Praise to the Lord” is framed by the F. Melius Christiansen setting; the last verse of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” roars with full organ and pealing bells; “Blessed Assurance” has a rollicking piano accompaniment (with an unforgettable tenor line on the chorus). The CD ends thematically and musically with a crescendo on “Abide with Me.” All of the music is published; bibliographical information appears on the CD jacket.

Psalms from the Genevan Psalter in Japanese. Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor. Available from Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.FaithAliveResources or 1-800-333-8300; ask for the card insert that translates part of the jacket into English).

When Masaaki Suzuki of the Bach Collegium Japan announced plans for this recording of eighteen psalms, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Would it make any more sense for Japanese musicians to record music of the Genevan Psalter with European period instruments and historical performance practices than for Western performers to create “authentic” gagaku ensembles? This stunning recording should evaporate all skepticism. Conductor Suzuki, a member of the Reformed Church of Japan, renders each with appropriate and energetic interpretations. Don’t miss the unique setting of Psalm 47 where all things “clap” as “God ascended amid shouts of joy.” Other psalms feature members of the Collegium, recorder, lute, chitarrone, and some stunning organ playing by Suzuki himself.

Music of the Genevan Psalter. Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.Faith Alive Resources or 1-800-333-8300).

Another CD featuring Genevan psalmody, this time interspersing congregational and choir singing with organ voluntaries. Both CDs can motivate music leaders to try some of the trickier “Genevan jigs” found in some hymnals. When sung enthusiastically with energetic accompaniments, these Genevan psalms become infectious; your desire to sing and teach them will undoubtedly increase.

A Hymn Festival Celebrating the Lutheran Chorale. Paul Manz and Martin E. Marty with the Valparaiso University Chorale. Concordia, 2000; CS-4.

Paul Manz’s talents as organist and composer are as well known as Martin E. Marty’s profundity. This recording features both, along with the Valparaiso University Choir. What ties the CD together is the Lutheran Chorale, those gorgeous four-part harmony hymns sung as only Lutheran Germans can sing. Demonstrating another German tradition, Manz sometimes plays in alternatum with the congregation as the organ “sings” a solo stanza, interpreting the text musically. Features such gems as “A Mighty Fortress,” “O Sacred Head,” “Lord, Thee I Love,” and Manz’s own “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.”

Gospel Hymns
The Old, Old Story: Traditional Hymns in Modern America.Congregations of Bowling Chapel Church and the Fundamental Methodist Church, Crane, Missouri. www.slewfootrecords.com.

This recording became an instant best seller after National Public Radio aired a story about the musical life of these congregations. Though the music may be unrehearsed, what shines though is the singing soul of a congregation—unequal voices, out-of-tune piano and all! This is American prairie gospel hymnody authentically rendered, including such favorites as “The Lily of the Valley,” “When We All Get to Heaven,” and “I’m Standing on the Solid Rock.” Don’t miss the flashy piano accompaniment for “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”!

Mahalia Jackson Sings America’s Favorite Hymns. Columbia, CGK 30744.

Mahalia Jackson is a legend that every church musician should know, for her voice and for her place in the evolution of gospel music. Mahalia sang at John Kennedy’s inaugural and at the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 Freedom March on Washington on the day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This CD is a digitalized recording of an earlier album of hymns sung in Mahalia’s inimitable gospel-blues style, allowing listeners to hear the artist at her peak.

Variety
Home, Harvest, and Healing: A Sing for Joy Hymn Festival. www.singforjoy.com

A recording of an ecumenical hymn festival held in 2003 to celebrate the new organ at Minneapolis’s St. Olaf Catholic Church. Features a thousand-voice congregation along with a large choir, with Bruce Benson offering spoken modulations that bridge the hymns and anthems. This CD shows how a congregation can sing with power, and that power is not always the same as loud.

Hymn: The American Boychoir. Directed by James Litton, featuring Twila Paris and Steven Curtis Chapman. Angel Records, 1995.

This wonderful recording is a collage of baroque chamber music, boy choir, and recording artists Chapman and Paris. The singing by the boy choir is, as one would expect, superb. But this recording shows best how less is more—even with so much talent and so many resources at hand. Don’t miss “Spirit of the Living God” or “Softly and Tenderly.”

Hidden in Humbleness: Meditations for Holy Week and Easter. The St. Olaf Cantorei, John Ferguson, conductor. GIA CD-594.

This recording may inspire new ideas to replace a Lenten cantata. Hymns, readings, and anthems are woven together in a moving way. The idea could be adapted for any church; the CD jacket includes even the spoken reflections. Don’t miss John Ferguson’s other recordings (with or without the Cantorei) either: A Thousand Ages: A Celebration of Hope (GIA CD-474), When in Our Music: A Hymn Festival (Association of Lutheran Church Musicians), Te Deum: A Celebration in Song (GIA CD-321).

Come Christians, Join to Sing. The Covenant Choir of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas. Lynda Fray, director; www.pcpc.org.

Recognizing that hymn singing introduces children to “weighty themes” that feed their innermost beings, the children of Park Cities Presbyterian Church memorized sixty-three verses of sixteen hymns in the year 2000, culminating in the recording Lift High the Cross (also available at the above website). Come, Christians, Join to Sing is the result of a public outcry for more of the same. This superb CD features children singing twelve folk hymns healthily and beautifully under their director, Lynda Fray. Baer’s colorful and touching arrangements are all sung in unison. Who would ever have thought (or dared) to use an accordion as accompaniment for “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship,” or a mandolin for “Come Christians, Join to Sing”? Think of these songs not just for children’s choir but for unison singing by any soloist or group.